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2020: Democratic Establishment vs. Democratic Socialists

Meet three new challengers to the entrenched old guard.

Shahid Buttar is challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has faced little opposition since being elected in 1987. (Photo: Shahid Buttar for Congress)

Shahid Buttar is challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has faced little opposition since being elected in 1987. (Photo: Shahid Buttar for Congress)

Democratic Socialism has grown in popularity over the past few years, fueled by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign and continued grassroots waves of support. The country has seen a surge of political candidates across all levels of government running on platforms that embrace democratic socialism. 

Democratic Socialists of America, founded in 1973, proclaims to advance the notion that “the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few.” The group has grown from around 6,000 members in 2015 to 56,000 members as of 2019.

A poll conducted by Axios in June 2019 found forty percent of Americans would rather live in a socialist country than a capitalist one; support for socialism compared to capitalism trends high among younger Americans.

This support for policies such as universal health care, free college tuition, and a more equitable economic system is being reflected in electoral politics as well.

Since 2016, DSA members and self-avowed Democratic Socialist candidates have won significant political victories across the United States. Six DSA members were elected to the City Council of Chicago, Illinois, in April 2019. Notable electoral victories for DSA members in 2018 included the election of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, and that of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated long-time Democratic establishment incumbent and fourth ranking Democratic member of congress, Joe Crowley.

Support for policies such as universal health care, free college tuition, and a more equitable economic system is being reflected in electoral politics.

DSA members won elections in 2018 to state legislatures in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and to town, city, and county councils across the United States. 

In 2019, a number of Democratic Socialist candidates launched 2020 Congressional campaigns, hoping to build on the success of progressive primary challengers including Ocasio-Cortez. Many of these challenges are in districts that include some of the nation’s most progressive cities, but which are currently represented in congress by entrenched establishment Democrats or Republicans who toe the party line.

House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly irked progressives, who see her as conceding power to the Trump Administration, reluctant in her support for impeachment hearings, and throwing progressive colleagues under the bus in response to far-right criticisms.

Constitutional attorney Shahid Buttar is running to try to unseat Pelosi in 2020 in one of the bluest Congressional districts in the United States. Pelosi has faced little to no opposition since she first won the seat in 1987.

“For twenty years, I’ve been a civil rights advocate and watched our concerns fall on the deaf ears of career Democrats who refuse to show up for the communities whose support they rely,” Buttar says in an interview. “Speaker Pelosi is one of the wealthiest members of Congress. Her supporters by and large are disproportionately wealthy. Their ability to preserve the career of an incumbent whose voice does not reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and preferences of our district is a reflection of how money in politics undermines democracy.”

Buttar sees the days for centrist Democrats as numbered; the only question in his mind is whether progressives will overtake them in this next election cycle or in later elections.

A self-avowed Democratic Socialist, Buttar notes capitalism and democracy are diametrically opposed, as unfettered capitalism is eroding democracy in the United States through attacks on voting rights, rightwing stacking of courts eroding the independence of the judiciary system, degradation of a free press, attacks on dissent through mass surveillance and prosecution of whistleblowers, and kleptocracy.

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“Socialism is about putting people before profit, making sure our social decisions are not dictated by the interests of capital to always grow, but rather through the interests of people,” Buttar says.

In Portland, Oregon, DSA member Albert Lee is running for Congress against Representative Earl Blumenauer, who has represented Oregon’s heavily Democratic leaning third congressional district since 1996.

“We haven’t had a choice here in our district in at least a generation,” Lee tells The Progressive. “I believe it’s time we had new voices and other perspectives to represent us here in the most diverse district in the state.”

Lee first became disgruntled with Congressman Blumenauer’s representation of the district during a health-care town hall a few years ago where he said Blumenauer favored improving the Affordable Care Act over supporting Medicare for All, which Blumenauer eventually came around to support. Lee argues that Blumenauer has showed up late to important progressive issues throughout his career while doing little to nothing on important issues heavily impacting the district, such as the homelessness crisis facing Portland and other cities.

“We haven’t had a choice here in our district in at least a generation.”

Lee is running on a Democratic Socialist platform that includes support for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and getting corporate money out of politics. He’s been formally endorsed by the Portland DSA chapter and Brand New Congress, which also backed Ocasio-Cortez’s successful 2018 victory.

“We cannot wait,” Lee says. “We don’t have any more time. I don’t understand how providing a twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth additional year to this Representative is going to effect change. We have to stop doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

DSA member and community organizer Heidi Sloan faces a different battle in Austin, Texas, where the state’s 25th Congressional District is gerrymandered in favor of Republicans despite Austin’s progressive leanings. She’s running for Congress to win the Democratic primary to face Republican incumbent Roger Williams, who was first elected in 2012.

“The vast majority of us in District 25 are part of the working class,” Sloan says. “When I see the left-right divide, my tendency is to push into that sense of division, the vast ideological differences, and  just go to talk to people about their own homes, families, schools, and workplaces. When we take democracy and apply it not just to the polls and not just see people as voters, we can actually have conversations.”

Sloan, who helped push the city of Austin to pass a paid sick leave policy for workers in 2018, is  running on a Democratic Socialist platform that includes housing for all, Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, public child care, and support for sex workers.

Like Buttar in San Francisco and Lee in Portland, Sloan is focusing on building a grassroots campaign centered on knocking on doors and speaking with voters directly, rather than relying on wealthy donors and an elite political consultant class that dominates the politics of the Democratic Party establishment.

“Democratic Socialism brings me out of this political space where all we have is our vote and puts me in a space where we have our schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, homes, and we need democracy in all these places,” Sloan says. “Democratic Socialism accounts for the people-profit intersection, where we can leverage our voices in solidarity, where we really can make changes so we can have voices in all of those spaces and solve for the problems that arise when we don’t have a voice.”

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Florida-based journalist focusing on environmental and civil rights issues.

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